Getting Through: A Short Story

Seven Simple Ways to Improve Your Presentations

Every day, around the world, people deliver presentations. Unfortunately, many of them are unpleasant experiences. At worst, they waste both time and money. It's madness.

Clear, high-quality presentations take time to create because good presentations are, at heart, good stories. The way to end the madness is to stop presenting inanimate slabs of data and to start telling memorable stories.

From our experience, we have found the following seven steps essential to getting through to audiences with powerful presentations:

1. Choose Your Own Adventure
A recent ad campaign asked "Where do you want to go today?" When planning a presentation, the second key question becomes "How do you get your audience to the same destination?" The answers to these questions define your goals. To answer them requires that you know:

• Who is your audience?
• Whom you want to impact most?
• What specific decisions do you want to be made?
• Which specific behavioral changes would you like to see?

These goals you establish at the outset are the criterion against which every slide and every statement should be measured.

2. On The Count Of Three
Pick the three things you are going to say that will engage your audience and meet the above objective(s). Tell your audience these three things up-front. This process is a two-way interaction; include them early to make it feel that way.

Why three? How we encode information directly affects our ability to remember it. Research on how we're able to manage and recall information suggests that we fare better with only two or three chunks of information than we do with more.

3. Spin A Yarn, Not A Web
After a presentation, facts, figures and data are often forgotten. We are a storytelling species, and a good story is not only memorable, it can also deliver a lot of information. When presenting, stories fit in at two levels: one, the overall narrative of the presentation; and two, individual stories to illustrate key points along the way. Remember that old Golden Rule from school: stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

4. Illustrate — Don't Dominate
Information design is its own discipline and well worth reading up on. If you're unable to do that, or lack access to skilled resources to seamlessly integrate lively charts and graphs and other data-rich information into your narrative, then at least pick a simple, clear presentation format that doesn't distract from your message and stick with it.

5. A Short Story – No Novels
A presentation can't do all of the heavy lifting of informing your audience. Bring supplemental, more detailed materials for your audience to refer to afterwards. If you design effective supplemental materials, your colleagues are less likely to forward the presentation via email without forwarding its ancillary materials.

6. Slides Are Catapults, Not Crutches
There is a common adage that you should only spend two minutes per slide. Don't believe it. Remember, you're not reading; you're presenting. The words on your slides are merely cues, sparks used to ignite discussion. Three great slides on a substantive topic can generate 30 minutes of useful and meaningful dialogue, adding texture to the overall story and allowing you to reveal further detail, insights and expertise.

If your slides are so text-dense that your audience could simply read the deck and get the point of your presentation, then save them the time and just mail it in.

7. You Give What You Get
Ultimately, a presentation is about making a connection with your audience, not about simply "getting through it." I once asked a friend how one of his presentations went, and he said, "Great presentation, wrong audience."

We've all sat through events where the presenter was determined to get through every slide, regardless. If my friend had read his audience and focused on the key points that would have kept them engaged, they would have become the "right audience."

Acknowledging and adapting to your audience opens you up to take everything better in stride: when a question is raised out of left field, when the projector breaks down, when your host cuts your planned time in half, or when the CEO "drops in" to hear what you have to say.

We believe embracing your inner author and implementing these seven tips will create stronger engagement during your meetings, greater retention of the information presented, and greater clarity in achieving the objectives you identified before you wrote the deck. If your stories begin to win you legions of fans, feel free to share these tips with your colleagues. After all, when was the last time you heard a good story?